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Movie Review – "High Plains Drifter" Sees a Western Town Painted Red, and Justice Finally Done

High Plains Drifter – 3 Stars (Good)

“High Plains Drifter” was one of Clint Eastwood’s best-loved western movies, and also the first movie he also directed. His role as “The Man With No Name” continued after its introduction in the three now-famous spaghetti westerns that preceded it-“A Fistful of Dollars”, “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”.

Released in 1973, High Plains Drifter finds a stranger (Clint Eastwood) passing through Lago, a greedy mining town whose prominent businessmen conspire to murder their sheriff when he discovers their income-producing mine just happens to be on government land and threatens to expose them.

The lawman, Marshal Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn), is horsewhipped to death by three hired assassins-Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis), Bill Borders (Scott Walker) and Cole Carlin (Anthony James). No one lifts a finger to help Marshal Duncan, and he is buried in an unmarked grave.

The three killers have been doing time and are about to be released from prison. They aim to return to Lago and extract vengeance on its residents. Knowing they will return someday, the town’s corrupt leaders hire three other tough guys to defend them when the killers return.

Unfortunately, they have a small problem. The three tough guys decide to bully The Man With No Name just after he arrives in town, and orders up a drink at the local watering hole. When confronted and cornered, the stranger promptly kills all of them in a gunfight. The town leaders, in a panic because they get word the three killers have been released and our on their way to Lago, decide to hire the stranger to replace the three now dead tough guys.

The Man With No Name soon finds that there is not an honest fighting man in Lago, including the corrupt replacement Sheriff Sam Shaw (Walter Barnes). He tries to teach the incompetents how to defend themselves but finds the task boring and useless. He has every building in the town painted red to unnerve the unwelcome visitors. The stranger then leaves town and the townspeople are left to fend for themselves.

Bridges, Borders and Carlin ride into town and take over, killing along the way and putting everyone on notice that their lives are at stake. Then The Man With No Name returns and what happens next is why you should see High Plains Drifter.

This is a violent film. At one point early on, the town tease and wife of the mining owner, Callie Travers (Mariana Hill), manages to goad the stranger into dragging her into the barn for a sexual encounter. At another point, prior to the arrival of the returning killers, a few unhappy businessmen conspire to kill the stranger with little success as the stranger blows up the hotel and kills all four of them along the way. Another encounter finds the man with no name bedding the hotel owner’s wife, Sarah Belding (Verna Bloom).

Despite the killing and indiscretions of The Man With No Name, he is the “likeable” good guy in the film because he avenges the murder of Marshal Jim Duncan. The stranger just also happens to be the only man in the story with the balls and the fighting ability to back up his macho image.

No one plays macho like the legendary Clint Eastwood. He doesn’t put up with much and he doesn’t take names-he just settles the score and solves the problems no one else can.

High Plains Drifter, like so many of Eastwood’s earlier films, got no recognition from the film industry. I like Clint Eastwood as an actor and a director, and it shows. I would give this film an excellent rating but cannot because of one first-time director’s flaw-the man with no name is assumed by most viewers to be the stranger’s brother or family member whom he has come to Lago to avenge.

In fact, the Director Clint Eastwood meant The Man With No Name to be Marshal Jim Duncan, an out-of-place, surreal attempt that made little sense to moviegoers. Even reviewers worldwide still assume that the stranger is not reincarnated as Marshal Duncan.

During an interview on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” in 1994-21 years later-Eastwood made it clear that he favored the less explicit and more supernatural interpretation. Fortunately, Eastwood got over that idea in later movies in which he was both the star and director, and would go on to win 5 Academy Awards and 6 additional Oscar nominations for his work.

Copyright © 2010 Ed Bagley